The shifting role of leadership

Another week rolls by and the spotlight on leadership is more focused than ever. One of the key factors in our work with leaders and leadership teams over the past 20 plus years has been the understanding and defining of the role of leadership. The culture of the organisation and the market within which it operates offer important context. Alongside this there are personal factors to take into consideration; preferred or natural styles, the maturity of teams along with the experience, ambition and confidence of the team members – all add to the overall winning formula of what it takes to be a great leader and a great Exec. But while the ingredients may not vary all that much the measures and mix of the components will; knowing what to draw on, when to draw on it and for how long is where the alchemy comes into play. That bit of magic that gives inspiration and ultimately success.

What is needed from leaders in the ‘here and now’ is often very different to what is needed 6, 12, 18 months down the line. But, the impact of COVID has condensed these shifts into a much sharper focus of weeks, even days in some cases, bringing new challenges (some never faced before) in terms of how far to flex and how quickly.

Leader as curator and guide

Leaders have had to be many things to many people over the past few months, some of which has been within their leadership comfort zones, much of it not.

Initially we saw the role of leader becoming one of protector, sense-maker and emotional supporter. More recently we have observed a pronounced shift to that of navigator, tactician and guide.

But, as the shape of ‘the next normal’ – the new blend – slowly comes into focus other leadership roles are beginning to emerge. Up until now teams have coalesced around some of the more basic factors in play; fear, safety, health (think the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

What’s needed now is a different focal point – leaders are seeing a need to pivot conversations on a more positive line, while still acknowledging the very real and lasting emotional toll. It’s no longer working to keep driving the agenda in quite the same ‘all-consuming’ way that is it has been. Leaders are talking to us less about ‘course correcting’ and more about ‘forward-mapping’ – as one client put it, she wants her team to ask, ‘what are we capable of doing now that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have done before?’ And in the very same conversation we also spoke about how to begin injecting more of the ‘critical friend’ role into leadership – continuing to listen and empathise but being more candid in feedback and with the view of ‘moving conversations forward’ – getting back to Adult:Adult.

Shared leadership

Of course in developing a more positive and stimulating vision for the future, leaders themselves have to feel sustained and inspired. While there’s been no lack of personal support in the teams we’ve been working with, problem solving and decision making have often remained a select responsibility with some Execs describing it as becoming an ‘individual burden’. The joy of working up strategic problem solving, of making key organisational wide decisions as an Exec team has become a bit diminished.

In recognising how limiting this has been and how draining for his team, a CEO shared his thoughts in a recent session:

‘It’s important for us to create a safe harbour for this team. A place where we can share openly and honestly but also generate ideas and solutions together.’

However we choose to define our role as leaders, we should be mindful of it being a shared role, not isolated or cut-off from others but part of a much bigger and bolder leadership identity.

In response to a question we posed to another of our Exec teams…

‘What do you want people to say about your leadership in this lockdown period?’

This response grabbed our attention;

‘That I was optimistic, yet realistic and kept the team consistently motivated to achieve the goal. That I was open, available, and understanding towards anyone who needed anything, and most of all, that every team member could feel my genuine appreciation for the hard work contributed’